Foreign students who want to begin their study of Mandarin or even finish it with a college degree without ever setting foot in China now have that chance using a Chinese-language education Web site. The Web site, www.eblcu.net , was launched on September 7 in Beijing as part of an Internet school system developed by Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). This is the only college whose diploma is authorised by the Education Ministry, which is in partnership with the school. Foreign students can log on to the Web site from anywhere in the world for Putongua courses in reading, listening comprehension, or oral Chinese for business. They can also get a tutorial for the HSK Test, an exam in Chinese similar to the United States' TOEFL exam for English. The courses range from US$80 to US$880. Students still cannot take exams online. But those who get all the required credits can go to designated testing centres abroad and obtain a diploma after passing the exam. 'This should be very attractive to foreign students because it saves them a lot of expense for international travel, accommodation, as well as the time spent away from the job,' said Zhang Pu, the director of the net school. Mr Zhang said university staff got the idea for the net school when they found they could not handle the increasing numbers of foreign students. The university is one of the largest of 360 schools on the mainland with Chinese-language faculties and has had more than 6,000 students enrolled in its programs every year for the past few years. 'The small hotels around our school are crammed with foreign students because we don't have enough dormitories and other facilities,' Mr Zhang said. 'And we expect the number of students to grow even more as China's WTO entry approaches and because Beijing will be host to the 2008 Olympic Games.' Beijing's Huaxia Dadi Distance Learning Service helped the university was helped in developing the Web site. The joint venture was established by the Education Ministry, Beijing Education Commission and Hong Kong-listed Sino-i.com. The software was developed by Huaxia Dadi so that students could hear standard modern spoken Chinese online. It also has a recording function that allows students to compare the sound of their own voice with the correct pronounciation. Although students do not have a teacher to turn to for immediate help they can take part in BBS tutorials or use e-mail to obtain help. Huaxia Dadi marketing manager Zhang Weiping said her company plans to open another school on the Web with BLCU to provides courses in Peking Opera, Chinese literature and kung fu.